2011 MINI Cooper Expert Review:Autoblog
Henry Ford, Ferdinand Porsche, Karl Benz, Gottlieb Daimler. All pioneers in the automotive world. But this list would be woefully incomplete without the inclusion of Sir Alec Issigonis, the man most responsible for the design of the original Mini.
Issigonis once famously said, "When you're designing a new car for production, never, never copy the opposition." Sage advice, we'd say, as the Mini – a true clean-sheet automotive design, with its transverse engine, front-wheel drive and sparse seating – went on to become one of the most successful vehicles in history. And its name and likeness continue to live on in the form of the modern-day Mini Cooper, Clubman and, most recently, Countryman.
Despite the similarities from one modern generation to the next, the BMW-owned automaker is quick to point out the myriad of changes made to the Cooper for the 2011 model year, not the least of which are improvements to the engine and transmission options, resulting in more power and improved efficiency.
So, the logical question is: Do these changes make a better Mini, or are they so minor (or is that Minor?) you won't even notice?
Photos copyright ©2010 Jeremy Korzeniewski / AOL
The most obvious place to begin charting the changes is the exterior. Up front you'll find restyled bumper fascias and larger fog lights, while optional black headlight housings are now available with adaptive Xenon lamps.
The electric Mini E's hood has been cribbed and installed on base Coopers, while the turbocharged S models still have their hood scoops and gain functional brake cooling ducts. At the rear are tweaked taillamp assemblies with LED fog lights along with a redesigned rear bumper housing the reverse lights.
The final notable tidbit is the availability of a new hue: British Racing Green II. Finally, a color that actually looks like the classic BRG we all know and love. It's about time, as the previous dark green, while perfectly acceptable, simply wasn't "British Racing Green." While that's a color we're excited about, perhaps now would be a good time to point out the, ahem, interesting combo of the vehicle in our photos. While there's nothing at all wrong with the new Spice Orange hue for 2011 or the Classic Green Lounge Leather (Mutant Ninja Turtle Green, as we took to calling it) interior... let's just say the two should probably never be combined on the same vehicle.
Minor changes filter inside, beginning with the standard dinner-plate sized speedo gauge mounted front and center. As ever, the unit's primary purpose is to house the speedometer, along with a much smaller electronic fuel gauge. Underneath you'll find the buttons and dials to control the audio, but what you won't find is the terminally confusing secondary dial on the center stack. Mini has nixed it for the 2011 model year, a development for which we can only offer three cheers. Carrying over from past models is the smaller tachometer mounted atop the steering column and directly in the driver's line of sight.
This arrangement may seem a bit odd for drivers accustomed to a standard gauge cluster, but it doesn't take long to acclimate. Style-conscious buyers are likely to love the refreshed Mini's key, which must be pressed into a slot in the dash before pushing the 'Start' button, but we wonder why it's not using a simple proximity sensor instead. And, of course, those well-known chrome toggle switches that control locking and power windows are still located at the very bottom of the center stack in front of the shifter – a stylish concession to functionality.
All of the surfaces the driver will come into contact with are high quality and mostly soft, including the shifter knob (do yourself a favor and choose the short-throw six-speed manual, please) and the excellent, small-diameter steering wheel. Another fashion-forward feature is interior lighting that goes from a sporty orange to a soothing blue in five steps.
For 2011 there are three audio packages to choose from, the first of which eschews any newfangled tech in favor of a simple CD player with HD and satellite radio all standard and pumping through six speakers. Stepping up a notch will get you to the truly innovative tech known as Mini Connected. Those who've never completely come to love the central speedo are sure to prefer this upgrade, which houses a 6.5-inch display in the giant gauge, placing the speed readout along the circumference of the dial. Aesthetically, this is a big improvement over the glaring white face of the standard setup.
When stepping up to the Mini Connected with Navigation, you'll get (rather obviously) a sat-nav system stored on flash memory cards that are accessible via a USB connection. There's a plethora of functionality with the Connected system, including Bluetooth audio, album art (similar to what you'd see on your iPod), Web radio streaming and even RSS feeds that can be read aloud. You can also send pre-written Tweets, update your Facebook status with location information or perform local Google searches.
We found the technology package fairly easy-to-use and navigate, despite the fact the screen is not touch sensitive. Instead, you toggle through the menus using a control knob mounted between the front seats. If that sounds complicated... well, it is a little complicated, but we're pretty sure most anyone shopping in a Mini dealership will be able to figure it out.
We're happy to report the 2011 Mini Cooper drives almost exactly like the 2010 Mini Cooper – no real surprise considering the limit of the changes. A boost in horsepower on standard models from 118 to 121 horsepower is nominal, but the Cooper S gets a bump to 181 ponies (up from 172), which can be felt when accelerating up a hill or on-ramp. Electronic power steering has allowed the crafty German engineers to add anti torque- and anti bump-steer to the Cooper's repertoire, and the modifications were obvious when compared to last year's model. The new suspension tricks were particularly transparent under hard acceleration and even more pronounced when matting the throttle on the turbocharged model, with its 'Overboost' function delivering up to 192 lb-ft of torque from 1,700 rpm onwards.
Despite the added power, Mini has managed a slight increase in fuel efficiency across the board, with the standard model now registering 37 miles per gallon. Perhaps more impressive is that the Valvetronic-equipped S makes even more power while earning a 36-mpg highway figure.
We also noticed that the S model's computer allows the turbocharged cars to 'pop' under deceleration more than before when in Sport Mode (activated from inside the cabin with a console-mounted button), a quaint nod to the Minis of yore.
We won't employ the terminally-overused 'go kart' descriptor (dammit, just did), but if you've driven a modern Mini, you'll be instantly familiar with the quick, slightly darty steering and lively ride. Step it up a notch by ordering the Sport suspension and those adjectives change to firm and even borderline harsh on some pockmarked roads. But you're rewarded with a direct connection to the tarmac that fades away only when the stability or traction control decide to intervene... which sometimes happens far too early. Do it right (or get lucky...) and you can turn the telltale understeer into a surprisingly neutral drifter that's hilariously fun when the road turns twisty.
While it may not bear much in common with its iconic predecessor, the 2011 Mini Cooper retains all the charm and panache buyers have come to expect since the brand's rebirth just a few years back, and the added improvements just sweeten the deal. There aren't any cars currently available in the States that can match the size, fun and refinement offered by the 2011 Mini. And even in it's current form, we have a feeling Sir Alec would approve.
Photos copyright ©2010 Jeremy Korzeniewski / AOL
New Car Test Drive
Agile handling in hardtop, convertible and Clubman body styles.
The Mini Cooper line delivers agile handling, crisp performance and an interminably cute bulldog appearance in tidy, efficient packages, with plenty of space and comfort for front seat passengers. The Mini lineup has been thoroughly updated for 2011, including the introduction of the four-door Countryman (reviewed elsewhere). The 2011 Mini Cooper now comes in four body styles, all powered by a 1.6-liter four-cylinder engine.
The 2011 Mini Cooper models benefit from revised engines and revised styling. The engines are more efficient and slightly more powerful for 2011. Standard equipment is more plentiful, with HD and satellite radio in all models. The 2011 Mini Coopers have new bumper designs and tail lights and new wheel designs. The front ends have been reshaped to meet new requirements for pedestrian safety.
The standard 121-horspower 1.6-liter engine works best with the standard manual transmission, in our opinion, but all Minis are available with an optional 6-speed automatic.
The turbocharged version in the Cooper S models generates 181 horsepower and a substantial 192 pound-feet of torque, making it one of the auto world's most powerful engines for its size.
All the Minis are fun to drive, but in Cooper S trim they bring exhilarating performance and nimble handling that's most easily appreciated through the experience. And they still return up to 27 mpg city, 36 highway, according to the EPA.
The standard Mini Cooper hardtop is very practical as a two-seat car, and large enough to accommodate all sizes of drivers and front passengers in very comfortable seats. With its hatchback and folding rear seats, the hardtop can haul reasonable amounts of gear. Its two-place rear seat is hard to climb into, and best left for small children or emergency roadside assistance.
The Mini Cooper convertible has less rear seat room and less rear cargo capacity than the hatchback, but its automatic soft top is easy to operate and well insulated for year-round use. We see the convertible as a two-seat car with the option of hauling another two passengers in a pinch.
Those who want more room might choose the Mini Cooper Clubman, which is something like a small station wagon. The Clubman is 9.4 inches longer overall than the hardtop, and 3.2 inches longer in wheelbase. The extra wheelbase converts to more rear legroom, and access to the rear seat is eased by a third, rear-hinged door on the passenger side. The Clubman also features side-hinged swing-out doors at the back, for easy access to the cargo area. A huge range of styling options allows owners to personalize their cars, and it's a major component of Mini's appeal. The choices cover upholstery style, material and color, exterior graphics, trim pieces and ambient lighting. More functional options range up to high-end features like adaptive Xenon headlights, rear obstacle warning and a navigation system. The basic Minis are reasonably priced, starting just under $20,000. Check too many options, however, and the ticket approaches near-luxury territory, or beyond $40,000.
The most expensive Minis are the high-performance John Cooper Works models. These play on the brand's heritage as a multiple rally and touring-car racing champion in the 1960s, with even more horsepower (208 hp) and ultra-firm suspension tuning.
The current Mini Coopers offer a truly unique combination of high style, driving fun, low operating costs and practicality. All Minis come standard with as much safety equipment as any small car available.
The 2011 Mini Cooper is offered in three variations: a two-door hatchback, called the hardtop, a four-seat convertible, and a slightly longer wagon called the Clubman. All are powered by four-cylinder engines, with a standard 6-speed manual transmission. A six-speed automatic with Steptronic manual shift control ($1,250) is optional on most.
The Mini Cooper hardtop ($19,400) is powered by a 1.6-liter four-cylinder engine rated at 121 horsepower and 114 pound-feet of torque. It comes with leatherette upholstery, air conditioning, power windows with auto-down, cruise control, remote keyless entry, outside temperature display, a cooled glovebox, rear wiper, 15-inch alloy wheels and AM/FM stereo with a single CD player and six speakers. For 2011, both HD and satellite radio are standard, with a one-year Sirius subscription.
The Cooper S hardtop ($23,000) is powered by a turbocharged version of the 1.6-liter engine, increasing horsepower to 181 and peak torque to 192 lb-ft. The Cooper S also has a firmer suspension, 16-inch wheels and unique exterior details.
The John Cooper Works hardtop ($29,100) is the raciest model of all, with a 208-hp version of the turbocharged engine, an even firmer suspension, larger brakes and 205/45R17 run-flat tires. The JCW models aren't offered with the automatic transmission.
The Mini Cooper convertible ($24,850) is equipped comparably to the base hardtop, except for its power-operated convertible soft top and standard 16-inch wheels. The Cooper S convertible ($27,850) and John Cooper Works convertible ($34,300) approximate corresponding hardtop models in standard equipment and performance.
The Mini Cooper Clubman ($21,100) has a slightly longer wheelbase than the hardtop, with an equal increase in rear seat legroom. It also has a short, third side door on the passenger side for easier access to the rear seat, and swing-out double doors instead of a lift-up hatch in the back. The Clubman is also offered in S ($24,800) and JCW ($31,300) models.
Personalization is a key component of the Mini brand, with an extensive list of factory and dealer installed appearance options that includes include exterior graphics, paint combinations, various chrome baubles and special interior colors, upholstery and trim
Most factory options are grouped in four major packages. The Sport Package ($1,250) includes suspension, wheel/tire and other performance upgrades, as well as competition stripes, depending on the model. The Convenience Package ($1,250) adds rain-sensing wipers, automatic headlights, Bluetooth, a universal garage door opener, auto-dimming rearview mirror and proximity key. The Premium Package ($1,750) includes a panoramic sunroof, automatic climate control and a high-power Harman-Kardon audio upgrade. The Cold Weather Package ($500) adds heated front seats, power folding mirrors and heated washer jets. Many of the items from the various packages are also available as stand-alones options. Other significant stand-alones include a limited-slip differential ($250), xenon headlights ($500), adaptive headlights ($600), Rear Park Distance Control ($500), and navigation ($1,750).
Safety features include dual-stage front impact airbags, front passenger side-impact airbags and full-cabin head protection curtains. The convertible has a pop-up rear rollover bar. Dynamic safety features include Dynamic Stability Control (DSC) and full-feature antilock brakes (ABS), with Electronic Brake Force Distribution, Brake Assist, and Cornering Brake Control. All models with the manual transmission feature Hill Assist, which activates the brakes when starting on an uphill ascent to prevent the car from rolling back. For 2011, Adaptive Headlights are available for the first time on Minis. This technology allows the headlights to follow the line of upcoming corners for better illumination of the road surface. Rear Park Distance Control obstacle warning is optional.
The Mini Cooper lineup has multiplied since the second-generation was launched as a 2007 model. Each new variant has been a bit different than the standard two-door hardtop, as Mini calls the hatchback. Yet none of the subsequent models will be mistaken for anything other than a close sibling to the chic, indomitably cute hardtop, or any Mini model sold since the brand was re-introduced in 2000.
With introduction of the Countryman (reviewed separately), all Mini models have been freshened a bit front and rear for 2011. They have new bumper designs and tail lights, and five new wheel designs for 2011. Also, the front ends of the 2011 models have been reshaped largely to meet new requirements for pedestrian safety. The geometry is such that pedestrians might be lifted up and further out of harm's way in the event of a collision, with larger deformation zones to reduce the risk of serious leg injury.
The Clubman is identical to the Mini Cooper hardtop from the front bumper to the back of the doors. Of its 9.4 inches of added length, 3.1 inches are located behind the doors and in front or the rear wheels, increasing rear legroom by a roughly equal amount. Another 6.3 inches are found behind the rear wheels, for more cargo space, but the Clubman still manages to keep a wheels-pushed-to-the-corners look.
The two biggest changes with the Clubman, compared to the Mini Cooper hardtop, are the substitution of split rear barn doors at the back and the addition of a rear access door on the passenger side. The right-side access door, or Clubdoor, is a small door that doesn't open independently of the front passenger door and is meant to provide easier access to the back seat. At the rear of the car, the handles for the split rear doors are placed together where the doors join. The rear glass is fixed and does not open.
The Mini convertible more closely resembles the standard hardtop, and matches its dimensions. The soft-top maintains the same basic silhouette as the hardtop, though the rear window is tilted farther forward. The rear side windows are about a third of the size of those on the hardtop because the cloth top wraps farther around the sides of the car. When the convertible top is down, it rests at the back of the car and sticks up a bit, sort of like a makeshift spoiler. The look is fine, but it blocks the driver's lower line of sight to the rear.
The convertible comes with an insulated fabric roof that opens at the touch of a button in just 15 seconds when the car is parked or traveling at up to 18 mph, which is very convenient. There are no latches to unhook, simply press the button. The top has a heated glass rear window. A sliding roof function opens just the portion of the top that's over the front seats. It's like a big sunroof that can be opened at speeds up to 75 mph. Pretty neat.
The Mini Cooper S models are distinguishable from the standard Cooper, no matter what the body style. Black mesh grilles replace the shiny bars, and lower brake ducts with optional chrome frames guide cooling air toward the brake discs. The S Models also feature a chrome-ringed hood scoop.
The current group of Minis represents the second generation of the re-launched brand, but Mini heritage dates to the late 1950s. The original was designed by the British Motor Corporation, or BMC, to provide the optimum in efficient, minimalist transportation. The Mini Cooper was roomy for four adults and surprisingly comfortable, and it was quickly adopted by celebrities such as Peter Sellers, who drove one on screen as well as off. It was famous for winning the Monte Carlo Rally. As today, a number of variants were produced, including the Jeep-like Mini Moke. The original Mini Cooper survived multiple corporate mergers and disasters, and by the time production finally ended in the 1990s, its pioneering transverse engine (mounted sideways, rather than lengthwise, to save space) had been imitated by most automakers. BMW revived the marque with totally new Mini Cooper in Europe for the 2000 model year. It was completely redesigned for the 2007 model year.
Mini interiors have been updated for 2011 with new features and materials and improved noise counter-measures.
Any Mini Cooper cabin is charming, and its finish is generally excellent. The plastics have a quality look and feel. This goes for the base Leatherette upholstery, also known as vinyl. Multiple leather options are available, including a cloth and leather combination, a full leather option, and the high-end Lounge Leather. The Lounge Leather is glove soft with contrasting piping, in the fashion of classic British sedans. Ambient lighting is standard on most models, and it softly illuminates the door panels and footwells with subtle LEDs. The driver can easily change the color of the lighting across a spectrum from soft orange to crisp blue.
If anything separates Mini from the typical small car, it's the numerous interior trim options that can give each one an individual character. The choices range from bold colors and stark metal accents with a trendy, fast-and-furious feel to soft tones, wood trim and contrasting piping that create the very British atmosphere of a luxury car.
The Minis have some of the smallest exterior dimensions of any four-passenger vehicle available in the United States, but they're surprisingly spacious inside. Even a 6-foot, 5-inch driver can be comfortable in the front seat. The basic manual levers, controlling height, seatback rake, and front-rear travel, allow just about everyone to easily find a comfortable spot.
The Mini driving position is excellent. We found the seats comfortable for long-distance trips, and they're nicely bolstered to keep you in place when you inevitably hustle through the turns. The available sport seats are even better.
A round, plastic transmitter replaces a conventional ignition key. It slides into a slot next to the steering column, and the driver fires the engine by pressing the adjacent a start/stop button. The button is cute and inoffensive, but no more effective than a standard key. The optional proximity key allows the driver to leave the transmitter in purse or pocket and just press the start button. We prefer traditional keys.
All models follow Mini's tradition of a big, round speedometer in the center of the dash. The tachometer is mounted on the tilt/telescoping steering column, moving with the wheel as it's adjusted it up and down. The convertible also has a unique Openometer next to the tach. It tracks the number of hours you drive with the top down and displays the owner's enthusiasm for open-cockpit motoring, a cute feature.
Audio controls are located at the top of the center stack, in the bottom portion of the speedometer dial. Heating and air conditioning controls sit below the speedo, and they're straightforward in base models. The available automatic climate control system, which maintains a constant temperature dialed in by the occupants, is cleverly configured in the shape of the winged Mini logo. The switch layout is generally effective, but sometimes things are too clever.
The audio controls sacrifice ease of use for design symmetry. The tuning knob is centered with most other audio buttons at the bottom of the speedometer, while the volume control sits further down the center stack, closer to the HVAC controls. You may change the station when what you really want to do is turn the volume up. The integrated design of the audio controls makes it nearly impossible to fit any aftermarket sound system, and the buttons are made obviously of plastic with a matte-gray in finish, in the fashion of a Buzz Lightyear remote control system. They detract from the otherwise high-quality interior appointments.
Chrome toggle switches that look like something out of an airplane or racecar cockpit are positioned at the base of the center stack to control the windows, auxiliary lights, and stability-control system. The toggles are duplicated above the rearview mirror to control interior lights, the optional sunroof and the convertible top. The steering-column stalk switches for the wipers and turn signals are pleasing to look and satisfying to use.
The optional Mini Connected or navigation systems add a rectangular 6.5-inch video screen in the central speedometer, with a digitally generated speed needle around its perimeter. Maps are stored on a built-in flash drive. Both Mini Connected and the full nav system add Bluetooth connectivity and a USB port, and they make it easy to integrate mobile devices. Audio can be streamed via Bluetooth, and album cover artwork and mobile-phone caller lists can be displayed on the monitor.
Interior storage space is not abundant, but it's adequate. There are bins in the door panels, map pockets on the front seatbacks, a small center-console bin and an average-size glovebox. The glovebox can be cooled with the air conditioning, and it's enough to keep a bottled drink reasonably cool for a couple of hours, or to keep chocolate bars from turning to mush. The optional Center Rail storage and fastening system replaces the conventional center console with two aluminium rails running lengthwise through the middle of the interior. Various accessories, including cupholders, storage boxes, trays or armrests can be locked anywhere along the rails to the occupants' preference.
In the Mini Cooper hardtop, the rear seat is suitable for adults only for short rides. Access to it is anything but convenient. The convertible has even less rear leg room, 28.1 inches compared to 29.9 inches, so adults or even children won't fit back there unless the front seats are moved far forward. It's best to think of the hardtop and convertible as two-seaters with emergency provisions for extra passengers.
The Clubman offers more interior space. Its additional wheelbase length translates into additional legroom for rear-seat passengers, and those in back have more shoulder room, as well. The rear seat of the Clubman is much easier to access from the passenger side, thanks to the Clubdoor. This little, rear-hinged door swings out once the front door is open, like a door on an extended-bed pickup. New for 2011 is a slot on the door that keeps the front seatbelt out of the way when rear passengers duck in. Rear occupants in the Clubman will only have a problem if the front seat occupants are really tall.
The convertible has the least cargo space of the Mini models. Room in the trunk doesn't change when the top is lowered, which is good, but there is only 6.0 cubic feet of space to begin with, which is bad. We couldn't even fit our roll-aboard suitcase back there because the opening was too short. The rear seats fold down, and Mini claims that opens up 23.3 cubic feet of space. But that space is hard to get to, and big items won't slide in behind the front seatbacks or through the short trunk opening. A Mini convertible is not a good choice for picking someone up at the airport.
The hardtop, with its large rear hatch and separate folding rear seatbacks, does better as a cargo hauler. With the rear seats in place, there's a miniscule 5.7 cubic feet or storage, enough for an airline roll-aboard and a brief case. But with the rear seats folded down, cargo volume expands to 24 cubic feet. That's more than enough for two passengers on a very long trip.
The Clubman provides a more usable 9.2 cubic feet behind the rear seats, and for 2011 it comes standard with a shade-type, pullout cargo blind. With the rear seatbacks folded, it presents a flat load floor and nearly 33 cubic feet of space. There's enough room for a single object about 2 by 3 by 4 feet in dimensions. The Split Rear Barn Doors, as Mini calls them, are hinged on the rear pillars and open out, providing wide and open access to the luggage area. So the Clubman is quite practical for hauling cargo.
Forward vision is excellent in all Minis, at least when the way ahead is clear. Given the Mini's diminutive size, larger sedans can block the view ahead the way big SUVs can from the driver's seat of the typical sedan.
Vision rearward is quite good in the hardtop. The convertible has a couple of issues, however. The lower portion of the driver's line of sight to the rear is blocked by the convertible top when it's down. With the top up, its corners block vision over the shoulders. Backing out of a parking spot can be a challenge, and the rear Park Distance Control obstacle warning is a particularly important bit of kit in the convertible. In the Clubman, the line where the rear barn doors join is a bit of a distraction in the rearview mirror.
We've driven the various Mini Coopers on race tracks, streets and highways around the world, and rank them among the most fun and responsive front-wheel-drive cars available, particularly given their outstanding real-world fuel economy. All Minis have a basic sporting character. Yet most are quite comfortable, at least in the front seats.
The current-generation Mini, introduced as a 2007 model, is in nearly all respects a better car than the original new Mini that re-launched the brand in the U.S. as a 2001 model. This so-called second-generation post-2006 version is even easier and safer to drive quickly than the 2001-06 versions. It benefits from changes to the suspension and increased engine torque.
For 2011, Mini upgraded its 1.6-liter inline four-cylinder engine across the line. The changes are aimed at improving efficiency, with less engine weight and friction, accessories that sap less power, and BMW's full, no-throttle Valvtronic variable valve timing. Still, engine output has increased slightly.
The 1.6-liter engine in standard Mini Coopers delivers 122 horsepower and 114 pound-feet of torque. The turbocharged 1.6-liter in Cooper S models generates 181 hp, with a minimum 172 lb-ft available at all times, and an overboost feature that will deliver 192 lb-ft in short bursts. The extra-racy, extra-pricey John Cooper Works models peak at 208 hp. Measured by specific output, a technical label for the amount of power an engine delivers for its size, the Mini JCW four is one of the most powerful engines in any automobile.
We think the hardtop is the best body style from a driving standpoint. It's the quickest and most fun to drive in the purest sense.
The hardtop hits 60 from a stop in 8.4 seconds with the standard engine, according to Mini, and in 6.6 seconds with the turbocharged engine (still delivering 36 mpg highway, according to the EPA).
The turbo engine reacts almost instantly to the gas pedal, with only the tiniest hint of turbo lag, and produces satisfying acceleration at all speeds once in motion. Its steady, even power delivery across a wide rpm range is impressive, and demonstrated at a race track. At Zandvoort, a former Formula One track in Holland notorious for elevation changes and tight hairpin corners, we found the Mini Cooper S hardtop turned its fastest laps with the transmission left in third gear rather than downshifting to second. There was sufficient torque at lower rpm to dig it out of the corners without the downshift.
Cooper S models come with a sport-tuned suspension, but their behavior is still quite refined, and more so than some other cars capable of similar track speeds. With a MacPherson strut front suspension and multi-link rear suspension, the Cooper S is flat and stable in corners, and absorbs small bumps and joints without discomforting passengers. With front-wheel drive, the car never feels at risk of spinning out, even with radical changes in throttle or brakes in the middle of corners.
A key factor in the Mini's sporting feel is its electromechanically assisted steering, which uses an electric motor, instead of belt-driven pump, for steering assist. Despite the fuel-saving electric power assist, the steering shaft is still mechanically connected to the steering box, so the driver still gets great feel for the road. The car's changing cornering force can be felt through the wheel. This system also varies the steering ratio and effort according to speed.
The effect of the electric steering is most apparent in tight, slow parking lot maneuvers, where very little effort or wheel motion is needed to make large changes in direction. In comparison, at highway speeds an equal rotation of the steering wheel results in smaller and less sensitive directional changes. Another advantage of electrically assisted steering, from the performance perspective, is that steering ratios can be optimized for various portions of a curve, and not just varied with vehicle speed. In the Mini, this means that the initial turn into a corner is cushioned slightly, so the car doesn't feel as go-kart twitchy as the previous generation. It feels a bit numb on center. But once a constant turning radius is established, it takes almost no effort to maintain the turn, regardless of speed.
Mini's optional automatic transmission works reasonably well with both the standard and turbocharged engines, and its paddle shifters are easy to use. The automatic doesn't need to be in Sport mode to use them, and when the driver stops using the paddles to change gears, the transmission reverts to drive, picking the gears itself. Automatics come with a Sport mode button that switches to a more aggressive shift algorithm that holds gears longer to keep more power on tap. On all models, the Sport button quickens throttle response and chooses a quicker steering ratio.
All that said, the 6-speed manual gearbox offers more driver interaction than the automatic and wrings the most from the Mini's small engine. We definitely recommend the manual for the low-powered base models, and we still prefer it for the high-powered models. It makes the driving experience more fun.
The brakes are first-rate on all Minis. The four-wheel discs are large for cars of the Mini's weight, and they provide quick, stable stops with good, consistent pedal feel. They're also managed by one of the slickest control programs in small cars. Both the base and S models benefit from Mini's brake cornering control, which can use the ABS to apply individual brakes to inside wheels to help get the car through a corner.
The Mini Cooper convertible is almost as sporty as the hardtop. This latest version handles better than the previous-generation convertible thanks to a stronger body structure that substantially reduces cowl shake and body shimmy. There's more of both than one finds in the hardtop, but less than in some more expensive convertibles.
The Clubman is nearly as fun to drive as the regular Mini Cooper hardtop. The Clubman's extra length may actually help in some ways. The longer wheelbase helps to smooth out some of the bumps and make the Clubman somewhat more stable in turns. We drove a Mini Cooper S and a Clubman S on an autocross course, and the cars felt very similar. The hardtop is slightly more nimble and more eager to react to quick changes of direction, but the Clubman is still nimble compared to similarly sized cars in tight quarters.
On the road, most drivers should find the Clubman a little more comfortable than the Mini Cooper hardtop. The first Mini Coopers were known for a somewhat punishing ride, especially the higher performance S model. The Clubman's longer wheelbase helps to mitigate that problem, making the S model more palatable for more customers, even if the Clubman S is not exactly a magic carpet. If ride comfort is a buyer's top priority, the new Countryman should be the Mini Cooper of choice.
Tires play a crucial role in the Mini ride-quality equation, and there is a variety of tires to choose from. All-season tires on the smaller rims deliver the most comfortable ride. This is most obvious in the convertible, which tends to emphasize road shock and shakes. The Sport Package, run-flat performance tires on the Mini Cooper S convertible made us dread the early spring potholes blooming on Chicago streets. Be sure to actually drive a car with the sports suspension and big rims, regardless of the Mini variant, before buying. They may make the ride too stiff for some tastes. We prefer the smaller wheels.
The Mini Cooper line is nimble, visually unique, and in Cooper S trim, quite fast. There is plenty of room for the passengers in front, and belts for four passengers in all models, though the Clubman is the better choice if the rear seat will be used with any regularity. Prices range from just under $20,000 for a basic hatchback to more than $40,000 for a loaded convertible. Any way you choose, the Mini provides as much style and sheer fun as any small car extant, and even more personalization options.
Gary Anderson reported from Amsterdam, with Barry Brazier in Barcelona, Kirk Bell in Chicago, and J.P Vettraino in Detroit.
Mini Cooper hardtop ($19,400); Cooper S hardtop ($23,000); John Cooper Works hardtop ($29,100); Clubman ($21,100); Clubman S ($24,800); John Cooper Works Clubman ($31,300); Cooper convertible ($24,850); Cooper S convertible ($27,850); John Cooper Works convertible ($34,300).
Options As Tested
Premium Package ($1,750) includes dual-pane panoramic sunroof, automatic climate control, and Harman Kardon audio upgrade; Convenience Package ($1,250) includes rain-sensing wipers, automatic headlights, Bluetooth, universal garage door opener, iPod adapter, auto-dimming rearview mirror, and proximity key access and starting; Cold Weather Package ($750) includes heated front seats, heated folding mirrors and heated washer jets; cloth/leather upholstery package ($1,000); sport seats ($250).
Mini Cooper Clubman S ($24,800).
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